Writing Should be Concise

This rule is anathema to any writer paid by the word, but it is still very true. You should be able to tell your story in the fewest words possible while still crafting your story, world, idea, and characters as full as your story dictates they should be. Hawthorne is famous for breaking this rule. How many pages did it take to describe the scarlet A’s intricate stitching? I exaggerate, but only a little. Philosophers are worse and are, in my opinion, the source of all too-wordy writing.

Technical Writing Rules on Conciseness:
Don’t say more than you have to.

What exactly does “concise” mean in fiction, though? It is easy to leave out important details in the effort of trying to limit page count. How do you know when too much information is too much? How can you tell if your description is too wordy?

Well, there are guidelines to writing concise fiction.

Narrative vs. Dramatization

You’d be surprised how often we write scenes that don’t really need to be there. Look at your writing scene by seen, and consider each one. Does the phone conversation between your main character and her mother have any dramatic value? That is to say, does something come out in the conversation that gives the character or reader any key revelations or move the story forward? If it doesn’t, then consider summarizing the phone call. A scene that took two pages to write suddenly only takes up maybe a paragraph or two, yet all of the important information from the scene is given to the reader.

Show, don’t Tell

Look at these two examples, and tell me which one is more concise:

“I’m sorry, I just can’t take you to work,” Felix said. “I’ve just got too much work to do.”
Sarah bit her bottom lip.
“You always have too much work to do,” she said before turning and stomping out of the room.

“I’m sorry, I just can’t take you to work,” Felix said. “I’ve just got too much work to do.”
Oh Sarah was angry. She could feel her stomach tightening with that familiar sense of hopeless anger. Why did Felix always do this to her? Didn’t he think that her job was important? It was always the same thing. She’d need a ride or a favor or just a moment of his time, and he’d have something else that just had to be done instead. But she couldn’t say anything to him about it, not really. Where would she begin? How would she get him to listen?
“You always have too much work to do,” she snapped venomously before turning and stomping angrily out of the room. 

What feeling does the image of Sarah biting her lower lip in the first example draw up for you? Frustrated? Like she can’t say what she wants to say? What emotions is she feeling in this scene? Anger? How can you tell? Her word choice? Her stomping feet?

The point is, I don’t have to tell you all of the things that I tell you in the second example. Why tell you she’s angry then describe the physical sensation associated with it? Could you tell when I went from showing you how she was feeling back to telling you what she was feeling and thinking? And you don’t really need me to tell you she snapped venomously. For one, it is clumsy to read (and write). Angrily stomping is redundant. Do you stomp out of the room when you’re happy or indifferent?

Sometimes you do need to be descriptive about what a person is feeling. But you don’t always have to give long diatribes about stomach knots and sputtering heart-beats. For one, that is cliché. Sometimes it is best to show the emotion through quick gestures or observations.

A clue as to when to be long on the description and when to be short is to look at the overall mood of the scene. For Sarah, I wanted a short burst of hopeless anger. If this were part of a longer story, I would use scenes like this to show how poorly Felix and Sarah communicate with each other. If you’re dealing with a mood that is playing on drawing things out or lasting, then you will want to go with longer descriptions (not everywhere, though. Choose wisely, grasshopper). If there is a mood in the scene of short tension or immediacy, then show the feelings and emotions with the shortest cues possible.
Kidding. There is more to the rule.

The Rest of the Technical Writing Rules on Conciseness:
If a simple instruction can be summed up in a few words, perfect. If a concept can be described in a sentence, great. The shorter the document is the more likely it is that the reader will completely and thoroughly read it. That said, you still want to have your information complete. Don’t leave out something important just because you’re trying to save space. Just don’t use superfluous words. If all the buttons are square, your directions don’t need to say “Press the square play button”. If all the buttons are large, then don’t tell us that either.

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